Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Are The Turf Warriors Up To?

Clearly, the Chinese have never had it so good here. Supplicants are proliferating left, right and center, lured by the promise of northern pragmatism. Inaugurating the China Festival the other day, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal lavished such praise on Beijing’s altruistic aid policies that for a moment it looked like he forgot he was already in power.
Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala, whose own effusiveness concerning China’s remarkable development has grown in direct proportion to her political ambitions, seemed not to know where to stop.
From Upendra Yadav to Matrika Yadav, Beijing’s benefaction has permeated what not too long ago would have been considered the least likeliest of constituencies. (Come to think of it, if the Indians could actually sponsor the Maoists, blame China and get away with it for a decade, why couldn’t the Chinese contemplate the same in the Terai?)
The prize definitely belonged to Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara. Not exactly for China adulation, though. He vividly articulated his party’s place between the two Asian giants. Only a strong Maoist regime in Nepal could ensure China’s and India’s security interests, Mahara asserted before accompanying his boss on a visit to Beijing.
Perhaps Mahara was merely laying down the line party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal expected to present to President Hu Jintao in Beijing. Or maybe the Maoists’ foreign affairs point man was on to something more profound. The Taleban, in that other landlocked ex-monarchy, enjoyed the support – active and otherwise – of key regional stakeholders and much of the world in the name of stability before the mullahs threw in their lot with Osama bin Laden.
The operative issue here is the most obvious one. How are the Indians going to respond? The usual suspect has conveyed the message. Former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, fresh from top-level consultations in New Delhi, said the Indians were in favor of peace and stability. (Aren’t they always?) Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) chairman Pashupati Shamsher Rana, too, did his share of rounds in the Indian capital, but has been reticent.
While the Maoist supremo confers in Beijing, the Nepali Congress’ Sher Bahadur Deuba will consult with the Indians. This simultaneous engagement in the northern and southern capitals involving competing Nepalese forces is unprecedented. Has regional rivalry reached new heights?
Not necessarily. Ever since they decided to mainstream the Nepalese Maoists, the Indians have been struggling to preserve their influence. In the me-or-them challenge the monarch rolled, the world’s largest democracy could not have abandoned the latter. Of course, New Delhi made allowances for an inevitable Maoist-Beijing alliance. The Indians, needless to say, were in the best position to know the kind of contempt familiarity would breed.
China’s firm hand behind Nepal’s clampdown on the pre-Olympics Tibetan protests did not alienate ordinary Nepalis in the way the Indians had anticipated. Instead, newly emancipated Nepalis demonstrated how you could admire the Dalai Lama’s fortitude and still acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Waiting for the Chinese to falter in Nepal risked becoming an open-ended enterprise for the Indians.
So the second-best option set in. Allowing the Chinese to gain ground became a doubly lucrative investment if it could help keep the Americans and Europeans out. Like any two turf warriors know, keeping the third and fourth parties out is important enough. Absent an ability to maintain total control, sharing the spoils makes great sense.
But the dilemma is deepening, especially for the Indians. The Nepali Congress is imploding. The Unified Marxist-Leninists are ducking behind the Nepal Army that is already beleaguered. Collectively, the parliamentary parties are incapable of replicating their 1990-2002 record.
Letting the palace run the show might have been the prudent option, the Indian Army and sections of the internal security establishment might feel. But that is a thought official New Delhi cannot even afford to contemplate in public. The inscrutable Chinese are not so constrained, either in posture or in perception.
So, in India’s view, the 12-point agreement – or at least some version of it – must stand. And the Maoists must remain the central pillar. By patronizing rival factions in that party and all the others, the Indians and Chinese can hope to reach some accommodation in Nepal. Amid the wider sabre-rattling between the Asian giants, at least, you can’t say that is not a reassuring thought.